- The Washington Times - Friday, August 1, 2003

A rumpled and barefoot Stephen Frears greets visitors to his hotel suite at the Four Seasons inGeorgetown. He has flown in from London for the start of a weeklong promotional campaign for his new movie, “Dirty Pretty Things.” The itinerary will take him into ever earlier time zones, and jet lag is already settling in.

Mr. Frears, 62, is the father of four. Born in Leicester, he’s the son of a general practitioner. After studying for a law degree at Cambridge University, he became attracted to the theater and worked as an assistant to the late Karel Reisz at the Royal Court. Mr. Frears was hired as an assistant director on “Morgan” with Vanessa Redgrave and David Warner. He performed similar duties for the late Lindsay Anderson on “If…” with Malcolm McDowell. Advantageously “networked” by the end of the 1960s, he began his own first feature, “Gumshoe,” a comedy starring Albert Finney as a make-believe private eye, before he was 30.

Released in 1971, the movie had its admirers, but financing for whimsical British features was drying up with the demise of “swinging” London. It was another 15 years before Mr. Frears began a second feature, a surprise hit about Pakistani immigrants in London, “My Beautiful Laundrette,” written by Hanif Kureishi. It was originally made for television, which had become a satisfying professional environment for Mr. Frears in those intervening years. He became a directing fixture at the BBC, working steadily and collaborating with such prestige writers as Tom Stoppard and Alan Bennett.

“I depend on writers to open my eyes,” Mr. Frears says. “The experience with ‘Dirty Pretty Things’ and ‘My Beautiful Laundrette’ has been quite similar in that regard. Someone had written something about a neglected social aspect of modern London. I was the first movie person to get the news. Hanif Kureishi had access to this fascinating Pakistani middle class that had begun to flourish in London. People had done films about immigrants, of course, but nothing quite that vivid and distinctive. And you didn’t have to present them as unfortunate or victimized figures at all. I liked that. You could just tell the story.”

The unexpected success of “My Beautiful Laundrette” as a theatrical release launched Mr. Frears on a second, extended career as a director of features. He and Mr. Kureishi reunited for the ribald “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.” Then Mr. Frears was hired for the Joe Orton biopic “Prick Up Your Ears,” which cinched his reputation as Mr. Cutting Edge in the late 1980s. He began an American phase auspiciously with “The Grifters” and “Dangerous Liaisons” and has remained successfully trans-Atlantic ever since. In the case of “High Fidelity” three years ago, he transposed an English novel set in London to Chicago.

The eye-opening writer in the case of “Dirty Pretty Things,” a topical suspense thriller with unresolved romantic undercurrents, is Steven Knight, who has three novels and numerous BBC comedy scripts to his credit.

He also helped cook up the extremely lucrative format for the quiz show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” The backing for “Dirty Pretty Things” came from the same production company that has done very well by that brainstorm.

The plot brings together a fugitive, undomiciled Nigerian doctor named Okwe, played by the impressive young Nigerian-English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, and a Turkish maid named Senay, played by the French actress Audrey Tatou, now an international favorite on the strength of “Amelie” but a virtual unknown to Mr. Frears at the time he was casting.

Okwe holds down a daytime job as a cabbie and works a graveyard shift at a hotel. Senay begins work at the same hotel in the mornings, and they exchange a key to her flat in passing. Okwe grabs what sleep he can while Senay is at work, then prepares a midday meal that reunites them before he goes back to the taxi fleet. The discovery of a gruesome black-market racket at the hotel intensifies their relationship.

“Steven knew a Turkish girl who was the inspiration for Audrey’s character,” Mr. Frears explains. “He became curious about the whole situation of immigrants, including the illegals. It’s an account of modern London that no one else has written.”

According to Mr. Frears, there hasn’t been an abundance of crusading journalism in England about the immigrant population. “To my knowledge, the chancellor of the exchequer did more to illuminate it,” he says.

“Anyway, he was the government figure who actually talked about their contribution to British prosperity by being part of a productive and rather ill-paid work force. They’re doing the jobs English people won’t do. He used the example of the National Health Service. The whole underlayer is staffed with immigrants: the cooking, the cleaning, all that.”

Audiences are likely to find Mr. Ejiofor and Miss Tatou an exceptionally touching match. Mr. Frears doesn’t mind admitting that he got lucky, “since there aren’t a lot of African actors and Turkish actresses that I know.”

An emerging theatrical star, Mr. Ejiofor had been “discovered” for the movies by Steven Spielberg, who cast him in “Amistad” when the actor, born in England of immigrant Nigerian parents, was still in drama school.

Mr. Frears offered the following phonetic rendering of his name: “Chewy-a-tell Edgy-ah-for. Everyone calls him Chewy, like Chewbacca in ‘Star Wars.’”

The director had seen Mr. Ejiofor on the stage, but the pool of candidates with a Nigerian background was so small that he also had other options in the back of his mind. “There are rather more West Indian actors in London,” Mr. Frears says, “so I went through a time considering them. I thought I might find someone in Paris. You didn’t want anyone too remote, or the audience would have terrible trouble. People in Paris tended to say, ‘Well, our Africans are more Parisian than African, you know.’ I was thrown by that.’”

Mr. Frears trusted Audrey Tatou as a beguiling presence and dedicated actress. He enlisted a dialect coach named Penny Dyer to work with her on English dialogue with a Turkish accent.

There also were field trips to the districts of East London where Turkish immigrants have been assimilating. He respected her appeal enough not to catch up with “Amelie” for a while, but curiosity got the better of him before “Dirty Pretty Things” was completed. He had no regrets.

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